Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Do You Have to File Taxes to Get a Stimulus Check?

By Christy Bieber - Jan 28, 2021 at 5:03AM

You’re reading a free article with opinions that may differ from The Motley Fool’s Premium Investing Services. Become a Motley Fool member today to get instant access to our top analyst recommendations, in-depth research, investing resources, and more. Learn More

Here's what you need to know about stimulus check rules.

In response to the novel coronavirus, lawmakers authorized two direct payments to Americans. The first, provided by the CARES Act, was worth up to $1,200 per eligible adult and $500 for each eligible child dependent. The second, authorized by a $900 billion relief bill signed into law in December, was worth up to $600 per eligible adult and dependent child. Most Americans have now received the money for both of those payments.  

When the money was appropriated, Congress authorized the IRS to distribute the payments. As a result, you may be wondering whether you need to file taxes to get a stimulus check. The answer to this question is a bit more complicated than it may seem. 

Burlap bag full of $100 bills.

Image source: Getty Images.

Here's the rule on tax filing and stimulus checks

When stimulus checks were authorized, the requirements for eligibility did not include filing or paying taxes. In other words, if your income is so low that you don't have to file a tax return, you were still eligible for the payment. 

However, the IRS did use information from your past returns both to determine eligibility and to find your financial information to deliver your check. In other words, if you didn't file a return in 2018 or in 2019, you were still eligible for a check, but the IRS wouldn't have known where to find you to pay you your money. 

To get around this problem, the IRS collected information from the Social Security Administration (SSA) and the VA so it could send out checks to individuals who receive these benefits but don't file returns. The agency also set up an online form for non-filers that people could use to provide the necessary details for the IRS to send their stimulus payments. Those who don't get SSA or VA benefits and who don't file returns were able to use this form. And individuals who do get benefits could also use the non-filers form to alert the IRS to their dependents and claim the stimulus money for them (the SSA and VA wouldn't have had this information). 

Because of this form, it was not necessary for non-filers to submit a tax return to get their stimulus money. However, the deadline for using the form for non-filers has now passed, and the form is closed. As a result, if you did not get your stimulus payment(s) yet, or you didn't receive the full amount owed, you will have to file a 2020 tax return to claim your payment.

You'll now have to file a return because the stimulus payments that were made were an advance on a tax credit. It's late to get the advance but not too late to claim the credit, which is being referred to as a Recovery Rebate Credit. 

There's also another scenario where you may have to file a return to claim your credit. Stimulus payments had a cut-off based on income. If your income was too high in 2018 or 2019 but has fallen in 2020, you'd be eligible for a payment, but the IRS wouldn't know it. You can file your 2020 returns and show you're now entitled to the Recovery Rebate Credit even if it appeared before that you weren't. 

So, what's the bottom line with all these rules?

While this may seem complicated, here are the basics of what you need to know:

  1. Submitting a tax return wasn't a condition of being eligible for a stimulus check.
  2. But the IRS used tax-return data to determine how to pay out stimulus money.
  3. Those who hadn't filed a 2018 or 2019 return had to provide their information using a non-filers form (unless the IRS could get their data from the VA or Social Security Administration).
  4. The deadline for using the non-filers form has passed, so you now have to file a return to claim the Recovery Rebate Credit and let the IRS know of your eligibility.
  5. If your 2018 or 2019 returns showed too much income to be eligible for a stimulus check, but your 2020 returns show an income below eligibility thresholds, you also have to file a return to claim your credit.

The good news is, if you didn't file a return in the past but you submit one this year to claim your stimulus check, the IRS will have your information on file going forward. If the Biden Administration is successful in passing legislation providing a third stimulus payment, the IRS will have your updated information, and you should get the third payment without further action on your part.  

Invest Smarter with The Motley Fool

Join Over 1 Million Premium Members Receiving…

  • New Stock Picks Each Month
  • Detailed Analysis of Companies
  • Model Portfolios
  • Live Streaming During Market Hours
  • And Much More
Get Started Now

Related Articles

Motley Fool Returns

Motley Fool Stock Advisor

Market-beating stocks from our award-winning analyst team.

Stock Advisor Returns
S&P 500 Returns

Calculated by average return of all stock recommendations since inception of the Stock Advisor service in February of 2002. Returns as of 06/26/2022.

Discounted offers are only available to new members. Stock Advisor list price is $199 per year.

Premium Investing Services

Invest better with The Motley Fool. Get stock recommendations, portfolio guidance, and more from The Motley Fool's premium services.